Movin’ on up

MY OFFICE A phone booth off Charing Cross Road, London (Photo: Paul Vlaar).

A Writer’s career goes places? 

Towards the end of my stint fetching food for fabulous people at a post-production facility in Soho, within the dim lighting of editing suites I realised how much I missed the fun of location shooting, and the creativity of starting projects from scratch. Post production was not for me.

So I religiously job-searched through all the usual channels, and in those pre-internet days that involved plenty of footwork.

Every week I’d go to the media and entertainment industry hubs where jobs were posted on notice boards watched-over by office staff jaded from listening to every up-and-coming industry professional in the city. I’d also trawl through industry magazines at the news stand, and then head to my office – a phone booth on Charing Cross Road.

I managed to land a few meetings and interviews with television networks, agents, and production offices, but meetings were as far as these opportunities ever went.

Eventually I was offered a position as a Production Assistant at a small television studio in West London, primarily to work on corporate videos.

‘The Corporates’ dance to a different drum, all very ideas-driven and upbeat. In reality, it’s an industry which relies on making the most boring subjects seem incredibly interesting.

To achieve that, corporations need artists willing to sell their souls for a little while, and with London’s infamous cost-of-living on the increase, and the rent still to pay, I dubiously accepted the invitation.

One of the first things to learn is how to speak Corporate language – a meeting is ‘face time’; giving something a try is ‘running it up the flag pole’; and discussing the fine details over coffee is ‘stirring some sugar over it’.

Just about everything is underscored, literally, with motivational (‘Movin’ on up’) stock music to leave even the most pessimistic participant humming with new-found enthusiasm.

One of the most famous corporate videos ever produced was the management training series presented by John Cleese which cashed-in on his Basil Fawlty notoriety. These set the benchmark in many-a corporate video meeting I attended over the next few years.

My soul has blocked-out most of the utterly boring products, concepts and sales-pitches I made videos about, but there was one project which was so forward-thinking it was impossible to not get genuinely excited about.

This was a drama-documentary produced by an inspiring scientist, Professor Robert (‘Bob’) Spence, of London’s Imperial College of Technology.

Bob had interviewed eminent design engineers about what they imagined human-computer interaction might be like in the year 2020, and he wanted these ideas realised in an ‘envisionment’ of social interaction 25 years into the future. This was my kind of corporate video.

TIMELESS LOCATION Silwood Park House, Berkshire (Photo © Copyright Mick Crawley).

We set about producing what became known as Translations, and it was my role to put a team together to create a drama-style production.

My eye for great locations had fallen on a property owned by the college in Berkshire, a wonderfully out-of-the-way place called Silwood Park House. Once a private home designed by Alfred Waterhouse (1830–1905), this place had all the trimmings that made it perfect for a timeless feel.

Now, thanks to one of the core ideas envisaged in Bob’s project – the internet – I was able to watch Translations again via YouTube.

We had very non-John Cleese resources (you’re only allowed to laugh with us, not at us!), but what is amazing about watching this production now is how many of the concepts have become realities – touch screens, flat screens, video conferencing, Intelligent Person Assistants … and there is still plenty of time for the rest of the ideas to see the light of day before 2020.

Student films aside, Translations was my first real crack at a complete production which relied on my skills as a director realising a vision onscreen. I saw it as a warm-up for things to come – working with skilled friends, on location in old homes and gardens, bringing ground-breaking screenplays to the screen.

If only life were so wonderfully linear.

Further work was in short supply (here come the days jobs!), but I did spend most of that summer polishing my second screenplay, Menace, which I developed into a one-hour format for a television production application. Inspired and deeply moved by the homelessness in London, and the impact of Thatcherite policies on Britain in the 1990s, this polemic little piece was full of gritty realities which Other Kingdom lacked, and remains one of my first works not to hit the rubbish bin.

I think the reason it survives is the rejection letter I received, a kind note which appealed to me on two counts – (a), to believe that not everyone was getting such a letter, and (b), that I should not give up writing.

I threw the letter away because I wasn’t sure (a) was true, but almost 20 years on, technology might have changed dramatically, but (b), I am still writing.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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